That's Not Normal!

People naturally define “normal” by their own experiences. What happens in their life, what their body does: these create their perception of normality. But I’ve recently talked with several people who had discovered that they had a physical debility they were previously unaware of. They had coped with it all their lives, so it was what they thought was normal. They thought everyone had to deal with it. Learning that it wasn’t normal, and that (in most cases) it was treatable, was life transforming.

My own experiences with something very simple, breathing through my nose, provide a perfect example of what I mean. I remember when I was on the high school swim team, several coaches told me to breathe in through my nose, not my mouth, while swimming. My stroke was distorted by turning my face too far, which I did to get my entire mouth clear of the water so I could get a good breath. I found their suggestion rather odd though, as it seemed impossible. I tried breathing through my nose, but I couldn’t get enough air to breathe that way while working so strenuously, so I quickly resumed my old breathing style.

Later, when I was in a university marching band (a band with an athletically demanding high-step marching style), people repeated this advice, especially after one incident where I came close to fainting during practice after a cold induced asthma attack. (Breathing through the nose warms and humidifies the air, reducing the risks of such an attack.) But I again dismissed this as silly, even specious: I thought no one could possibly get enough air through just their nose to breathe during such exertion.

Fifteen years later, when seeing an Ear, Nose, and Throat doctor about an unrelated ear issue, the doctor discovered I had enlarged turbinates, which were almost certainly congenital. The air flow through my nose was less than a third of what it should have been. What I thought was normal nose breathing was seriously handicapped.

So I had turbinate reduction surgery. It was a straight-forward procedure, which I had mostly recovered from in a week or so. (I had surprisingly little pain, which I’m told is unusual for nasal surgery.) My first attempt to work out about three weeks later was amazing. I could get enough air through my nose to breathe while exercising at high intensity. That was normal, not my previous experience throughout my life.

When I walked into the fresh prepared food section of Whole Foods Market’s headquarters store for the first time after the surgery, I was overwhelmed. It was heavenly. I was actually light-headed from the intensity of wonderful smells now entering my nose more freely. My body adjusted, so it’s not so overpowering now, but my sense of smell remains stronger overall. I’ve benefited from this surgery in many other ways as well.

Imagine if I had known sooner that my limitations with nose breathing weren’t normal, and if I had had the surgery early in high school. I would’ve been a better swimmer, since my stroke wouldn’t have been distorted by my mouth breathing. I would’ve been a better marching band member, because I certainly could have played better if I didn’t have to take the horn off my lips regularly to get a full breath. And I might have had a more positive view of exercising in general, with all its health benefits.

When I talked about this with friends, I began discovering others with similar stories. B.D. had frequent episodes of double vision, but she didn’t realize that they were very rare for most people. L.K., a woman with lifelong bladder issues, had always experienced pain when she needed to urinate, and thought that was true for everyone; she thought that pain was simply the body’s normal signal for the need to urinate. All these stories had a theme: they had thought their physical experience was universal, not realizing for a long time that it was in fact evidence of an abnormality, much less that it might be treatable. I began to wonder how many other people might unnecessarily endure conditions because they didn’t realize things could be different.

So I am going to establish a recurring feature here, tentatively titled “That’s Not Normal!”. I will post the stories I’ve been given, but I definitely need more. I am looking for stories like these: things you thought were normal or common but turned out not to be, and discovering that improved your health or your life — either through the knowledge itself or through actions you could take with that knowledge. My emphasis at first will definitely be on physical/health issues or very clear-cut psychological issues, but I will take any story you think fits this general mold. (I may even eventually expand beyond human health: Is it normal for my pet to do this? Is it normal for my appliance to do that?)

(Of course the terms ‘normal’ and ‘common’ are imprecise, and even emotionally loaded at times, so we could quickly get into the murky territory of asking what is normal or common, or debating whether something unusual is really a disability to be treated. I may let discussions go there someday, but to start I am going to stick with certain, obvious examples.)

I’m asking my readers who’ve had such an experience to share their story by sending it to me at I promise to hold submitters’ identities in strict confidence (standard disclaimer: unless I am legally or ethically compelled to reveal them). I will strip all identifying information from the story, referring to you using only random initials, then edit and post the stories as appropriate. If I get enough stories and feedback, I will spin this off to its own website. (I think a discussion board would be a useful adjunct to such a site, and I can’t add one here easily.) My hope is that such a site will enlighten others with the same conditions, leading them to get helpful treatment far sooner than they would have otherwise.

[Addendum, January 8th, 2010, 2:45 pm: Also fitting into this mold would be stories where someone realized their condition wasn’t normal, but didn’t understand the magnitude of the difference, or didn’t realize that their condition could be treated.]

[Addendum, January 9th, 2010, 10:00 am: If you think you have an appropriate story but lack time to write it up or find the prospect intimidating, you can contact me, and I will interview you and write the story based on that.]