Are You Normal or Nuts?
Our annual analysis of the quirks, tics, foibles, and zany habits that make us all too human.
Who, aside from those of us allergic to self-reflection, hasn’t ever wondered whether our nutty behavior means that we’re, well, nuts?
For me, the moment of doubt arrived several years ago when I found myself in a conference-center ladies’ lounge, anxiously unwrapping a whole smoked mackerel. I can’t — that is, won’t — reveal any more, except to say that the mackerel offered little guidance to my dilemma at the time, and I wrapped it up again. Then, neither more enlightened nor less composed, I returned to the conference.
My point: None of us is quite as sane as we seem, but neither is every weird thing we do irrefutable proof of insanity. In fact, a lot of our quirks prove that we’re just that — quirky, not certifiable.
How to tell the difference? Start by reading the letters below, submitted by readers just like you, which have been analyzed by our panel of psychiatrists, psychologists, and other therapists. Recognize anyone?
NORMAL OR NUTS?
Lately, after I read an unusual name, place, or phrase — Reince Priebus, Burkina Faso, schadenfreude — I often can’t get it out of my head for days, sometimes weeks. I silently repeat the words to myself, often spell them, and even wake up in the night with the words ringing in my head. Is my brain on the fritz?
Compulsive but normal
That sounds like a minor obsession, say our experts: Your brain feels that for some reason it must repeat these words. “But compulsions aren’t abnormal in and of themselves,” says psychiatrist Franklin Schneier. So unless this one is taking up more than an hour of your day or truly interfering with your life, Schneier would consider it “an annoyance but not serious.”
To stop the compulsion, embrace it. “Accept that it’s happening,” says Schneier, and that it’s not the world’s worst thing, just a personal idiosyncrasy. “If you say, ‘Oh, my God, there it goes again! I’ve got to stop thinking about that word!’ that’s not productive.” (And then try not to obsess about the word idiosyncrasy.)
Should the Zen strategy fail, try a more aggressive approach, says Schneier: Set aside ten minutes a day to repeat the word over and over again. Make a mental tape loop of it, and play it 100 times a day. Do it so many times that you finally get sick of it.
As an added benefit, you will probably learn these new words very well, says Schneier. You’ll stun dinner guests with your erudition in describing a recurring dream in which you’re overwhelmed by schadenfreude when Republican Party head Reince Priebus declares Burkina Faso to be his favorite Italian dish. “So maybe there’s a silver lining,”
NORMAL OR NUTS?
I sometimes have strange dreams when taking a nap, and I think they’re real when I wake up. Then, as I come around, I realize they aren’t. Is there something wrong with me?
What’s wrong is that you get to take naps and most of us don’t! But are you unhinged? The unanimous consensus among our panel: no. We all have wild dreams, and it’s normal, upon waking, to be fuzzy for a little while or even not remember where we are, especially if we wake up someplace unfamiliar, like a hotel. (Or a crater on Mars filled with unfinished Spanish homework.) Confusion is “normal because it lasts only a few seconds,” says psychologist Margaret J. King, who studies behavior across cultures to see what’s universal and what’s not as head of the Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis in Philadelphia. “What’s abnormal is if you don’t snap out of it.” Since you did — at least long enough to write a letter — you’re fine.
NORMAL OR NUTS?
I just turned 50 and am having trouble recalling names — even those of people I’ve worked with for years. Recently, I drove to work, parked my car in the lot, and at the end of the day couldn’t remember where I’d left it. Should I be worried?
Worried about what? Oh, right, forgetting things. That’s par for the course for someone your age, says psychologist Alan Hilfer, chief of psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York. “That’s why people in their 50s and 60s start calling everybody sweetie or champ or buddy. Because they have no idea what the person’s name is.”
Forgetfulness is not even a sign of impending dementia, Hilfer says, unless you can’t remember where you put your shoe “and you open the refrigerator and it’s on the first shelf.” When something like that happens, you should consult a neurologist.
As for not being able to remember where your whatchamacallit is — the thing with wheels, that you drive? That’s so normal, it has become sitcom fodder. “Didn’t you ever watch Seinfeld?” asks Hilfer.
If you don’t remember who Seinfeld is, then maybe it’s time to see one of those guys who wear a white coat and a stethoscope.
NORMAL OR NUTS?
When people are eating, I can’t stand the sound of a fork or spoon clanking on a plate or bowl. I get chills, nauseated, and a headache. I’m also sickened by the sound of people chewing with their mouths open. Is there something wrong with me?
It’s tempting to suggest there is something wrong with everyone else you know. How come they don’t eat with their mouths closed? At the least, you are overly sensitive to minor irritations, says psychologist Pauline Wallin — a sensitivity she understands too well: “When I hear Diane Sawyer’s voice on TV,” she confesses, “I have to run and turn it off, it’s so annoying.”
Minneapolis internist Archelle Georgiou says you may also be suffering from an obscure malady called misophonia. First described in 2001 by Emory University scientists Pawel and Margaret Jastreboff, the condition is characterized by a loathing of a range of sounds, such as those made by trains, musical instruments, and people (their breathing, for instance). According to British support group Misophonia UK (misophonia-uk.org), people with the disorder can feel an overwhelming desire “to escape the vicinity of the sound at all costs.”
Try refocusing your attention away from the irritant, Wallin suggests. Concentrate as hard as you can on something else when you eat with your friends: the music in the background, the scene out the window, even — what a concept! — what they’re talking about. You may be able to train yourself to be less bothered by the noise.
NORMAL OR NUTS?
Years ago I read that flushing a toilet sends millions of germs into the air, so now I always flush with the lid down. But most public toilets, whether in office buildings or in airports, don’t have lids, so I sneak away without flushing. Is this crazy?
You’re uneducated, not insane
“Well, it’s certainly inconsiderate,” says Dr. Georgiou. While it’s true that a spray of germs does get released during a flush, obsessing about that disgusting fact doesn’t mean you’re mentally ill, just ill-informed.
You should know that we’re built to handle all those microbes and more. In fact, our bodies contain ten times more bacterial cells than human ones. “You’re exposed to bacteria and viruses all day long,” says osteopath Jeffrey Tipton, a specialist in preventive medicine in Cerritos, California, “and when you’re exposed, your body recognizes and destroys them. It doesn’t stop working just because you’re in a public bathroom.”
Psychologist Wallin suggests taking a clear-eyed look at the bathroom-going world. “We don’t see people swooning all over the airport, collapsing from toilet fumes,” she says. Moreover, in those carefree days before you read that article about flushing, you, too, survived just fine.
Still, all the reassurances in the world can’t beat this straight-up experiment: Next time you’re in a public loo, do your business and then … flush! When you feel totally normal afterward (and you will), the spell may well be broken.
And then it will be safe for the rest of us to use the bathroom after you too.
NORMAL OR NUTS?
I hadn’t seen my mother in almost a year, and when I visited her recently, I noticed the shelves in her basement were filled with cardboard tubes from dozens of used paper-towel rolls. When I asked her what she planned to use them for, she said, “Oh, I just hate to throw them out.” Should I be worried about her?
Worry a little
Umm … have you seen any of those reality shows about hoarders? Our experts concur that it sounds like your mom could well be in the early stages of becoming one. This doesn’t mean that she will end up storing chicken bones in the bathtub, just that hoarding becomes more common in old age. (Some experts theorize that it’s a way older folks deny aging: Objects live on while the body doesn’t.) If your mom can’t give you a good reason why she is hanging on to the tubes (maybe she’s planning to make a cardboard igloo or something?), chances are it’s because even she doesn’t know why she’s doing this. It just feels scary and wrong to her to throw them out.
Hoarding becomes a real problem only if it starts to interfere with the rest of her life. If your mom can still entertain guests, and if her collection isn’t cramping her living space, she’s OK. But how can you prevent things from getting worse?
Psychologist Margery Segal treats hoarders the way she treats those with obsessive-compulsive disorders: by gradually exposing them to the thing they are afraid of, thus robbing it of its panic power. So if your mom freaks out at your suggestion that she throw out all her towel tubes yet finds it pretty easy to get rid of one, you might ask her to discard three — something just beyond her comfort level. The next time, you might ask her to ditch another six. The idea is for your mom to see that the world does not end when she throws out her beloved tubes.
NORMAL OR NUTS?
I can’t drink soda or ice water with a meal, because I once read that cold beverages congeal any fats in the stomach. So now I drink only coffee or tea with meals. Also, I never eat fruits and vegetables at the same meal, because I read they cause acid imbalances. Am I weird?
All you need to do is ask a real doctor about how the stomach works, and he or she will tell you (in more scientific language than this) that our innards heat everything up to 98.6 degrees, so forget about “congealing.”
The acid imbalance theory is also malarkey. “No matter what foods are in there, the stomach does its job,” says Dr. Tipton. It is constantly adjusting its acid secretions to maintain a neutral pH level. While you might get indigestion from some foods or a certain combination of them, that seems to be a very “individual thing,” Dr. Tipton says, and not something automatically caused by eating fruits and vegetables at one meal.
The take-home: Don’t believe everything you read — with the exception, of course, of what you read here.
NORMAL OR NUTS?
When I’m driving and have to cross a bridge, my heart starts racing and I feel light-headed and panicky.
The fear that I’m going to pass out makes the whole situation worse. Am I crazy?
More like anxious
This sounds like an anxiety attack, says Manhattan psychotherapist Jonathan Alpert. An anxiety attack is a milder version of a panic attack, which can bring on heart palpitations, nausea, dizziness, and a real sense that you are going to die. These attacks are the body’s responses to what it perceives as imminent danger. “Somebody who has a true panic attack would turn around and not be able to cross the bridge, because it would disable them so much,” says psychologist Hilfer.
You’ll be relieved to hear that many folks with anxiety attacks never experience a real panic attack. To keep your anxiety from progressing, try that old standby calming technique: breathing. When you feel your heart starting to race, take a deep breath in for a count of three or four, and then let it out for a count of five or six until you start to feel calmer.
Alternatively, you might try Hilfer’s visualization strategy: Imagine you are driving down a long passageway with lots of doors. Pass right by the door where you store the anxiety.
Hilfer also tried this with a patient experiencing your exact fear: “We made a tape of his favorite music — we called it The Bridge Tape — and he would sing along as he was going over the bridge.” That was enough of a distraction to make the trip bearable. Medications can also help ease anxiety, but for those, you should see a doctor.
NORMAL OR NUTS?
I often spin scenarios in my head in which I become a famous musician or actress and attend my high school reunion with great fanfare and acclaim. But I don’t work in either of those fields and actually have no talent whatsoever. Am I delusional?
No nuttier than others
Are you kidding? Have you noticed that the theme of about half the movies ever made is high school loser/nerd/wallflower turns out to actually be a superhero/knockout/basketball star who learns to dance/defeat the aliens/save the entire homeroom from nuclear destruction and gets the girl/boy/Nobel Prize just in time to (modestly) enjoy a standing ovation from everyone in the lunchroom, including the principal, prom king, and kindly, wise custodian?
High school and fantasy go together like cheerleader and football captain. “High school is a proving ground,” says Danny Jackson, a hypnotherapist. “It’s a place where we want to find acceptance. When we’re going back in 10 or 15 years, we want to show that we’re a success.” Daydreaming about that is one of the great pleasures of life — usually a whole lot more fun than the actual reunion.
On the other hand, if you feel you can’t return to your reunion because you fear that, in some way, you don’t measure up, perhaps you should talk through this issue with a therapist.
NORMAL OR NUTS?
When I’m with friends or family and someone tells a really good joke or funny story, I usually laugh until I cry.
I’m not sad, but the tears just flow and flow. I don’t know anyone else who does this. What’s up with that? It’s embarrassing.
Not to worry
You’re “completely normal,” says Dr. Georgiou. “Crying is not a sign of sadness; it’s a sign of feeling deep emotion, so it can be triggered by stress, suffering, happiness, or even, in some people, orgasm.” In case of the latter, I’ll just add my own unscientific suggestion: Make sure your partner knows you’re not overwhelmed by grief. Or disappointment. Or even hilarity.
If you are embarrassed by the public tears, however, try this: Prepare yourself not to react that way. The same way that a person can train himself not to kick reflexively when the doctor taps his knee, you can mentally prepare yourself not to cry when you laugh, says Dr. Georgiou. But why bother? “I think it is awesome you get so emotional and experience life so fully. It’s who you are!” says Dr. G. So be happy about your emotional wiring!
Just not to the point of tears.
NORMAL OR NUTS?
My teenage son recently told me he has always felt like he should have been born a girl. Could he still grow out of that feeling?
Counseling will help
He will probably not outgrow it, says Hilfer. When little kids talk about wanting to be a different gender, “it’s not the most unusual thing,” he says. “But when a teenager is still saying it, that’s probably something the kid is going to struggle with and could use help in figuring out.” Hilfer suggests finding your son a therapist who specializes in sexual identity issues.
A boy’s desire to be a different gender is not at all the same as what Hilfer calls homosexual panic, which is experienced by many teens. That’s when a boy finds himself admiring another boy — say, the hockey team star — and wonders if it’s a sign of something else. “Lots of adolescent boys worry that they’re gay. That’s pretty normal. Everybody’s trying to figure out who they are. But thinking or saying ‘I should have been born a girl’ — that’s more significant. It’s something that does happen with many kids who are transgender, and we have to help them.”