What is “Normal Sadness”?

I took my periodic look at The Saltbox, written by my colleague in the English Department, and noticed that he his latest contribution to Bookslut is an interview with Christopher Lane, author of Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness (Yale UP, 2007). I think there are legitimate concerns about the overmedicalization of everyday behavior (note I’m not using the term “normal” for reasons I’ll explain in a moment).

Allan V. Horwitz and Jerome Wakefield make a similar argument in The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depressive Disorder.

Now, one of the first principles of disability studies is a critique of the medical model, i.e one that postulates that disability is a “sickness” in need of a “cure” — this is where I think both these books are valuable. At the same time, though, by making a sharp distinction between “normal” behaviors/feelings/etc, and “disorders,” these books seem to reinforce the medical model’s classification of mentally ill individuals as an “other” distinct from the rest of humanity. What exactly is “normal” sadness anyway? Does fear of being labelled “abnormal” or “disordered” prevent individuals from seeking therapy? [related note: I’ve heard that Cherolle Brown is now alert and seems to be doing better, thank goodness!]

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the link!

    As far as the “normal” / disorder dichotomy goes, Lane’s take is ultimately slightly different:

    1. I actually don’t think he wants to distinguish normal behavior absolutely from disorders–rather, he wants to point out that there are a range of behaviors that might be normal, but which at other times might not be.

    A crucial principle seems to be that the same behavior may well have different meaning for different people, and so understanding what “normal” means is fraught.

    and then

    2. In general, he argues for thinking of certain kinds of suffering as reactions, rather than “disorders.”

    As far as “normal” sadness goes, rather than reach for the mourning/melancholia distinction, I’ve always liked Freud’s claim that psychoanalysis tries to replace hysterical misery with ordinary human unhappiness.

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