What is Normal? Pt. 1: Idealizing Civilian Life
We grow up moving either every few months or every couple of years. Our serving parent may or may not be home regularly, and our other parent may or may not have to work full time. Some of us helped to raise younger siblings, and some of us were homeschooled. Growing up in the military is such a wildly different experience that no two of us have the same one. What we do have in common is this idea that once we’re out on our own, once we’re civilians, life will be normal.
What is normal, though? The truth is, normal life for civilians varies just as much as it does among military children. While the change from growing up in the service to settling down in one town of your own choosing is jarring, you have the freedom to decide what normal means to you.
Once we transition to civilian life, we face a whole new set of challenges: nurturing old friendships, making new friends, setting down roots, and more. In all this, we still feel like we’re missing a puzzle piece like we haven’t found normal.
But the truth is “normal” is a myth. It doesn’t exist even in the civilian world. Finding this out is a huge let down for some of us, and it makes the transition seem somehow more daunting. You are not alone, and this post is aimed at identifying the hang-ups and helping you define what normal means to you. Think of it as a real-life “choose your own adventure.”
Faking It and Failing
Our family had picked up and left Cheyenne, WY, just a couple weeks following my high school graduation. While the rest of my friends were planning trips and parties, I was saying goodbye to as many of them as I could. Yeah, we were all saying goodbye, but everyone else was going to come home on breaks and see each other again.
I felt betrayed and angry that I had to lose my friends just that little bit sooner and that much more permanently. Having attended 12 different schools, I already knew no one was going to keep in touch, no matter what they wrote in my yearbook. That was part of why I felt so frustrated driving away from F.E. Warren AFB for the last time.
We were moving back to Virginia, where I had started high school. Some part of my brain thought I could act like I was going home. It didn’t matter that we were living in a city 45 minutes from where we were before. I was determined to get back in touch and spend the summer with friends. It didn’t matter that we were out of sync, and our history had a gap.
I started dating a boy I had dated for a week in 8th grade, and he would drive nearly an hour to come to get me to go back to Stafford to meet up with people I used to be friends with. We’d hang out and listen to music, talk, catch up, and I would pretend all of this was completely normal. This was akin to using Elmer’s School Glue to piece together a priceless vase. It’s bound to fall apart again. But at the time, I felt like I was getting a “normal” post-high-school-graduation-summer.
The First Time on My Own
The day I moved into my college dorm, it felt, for once, that everyone in my community was starting out on the same foot. There were no cliques. None of us knew the culture. And most of all, no one knew the area.
For the first time, I felt like I could make friends at my own pace. With four years ahead of me, it didn’t seem like there was any rush to fit in or join up. It was instantly relaxing, and I was able to make friends with a variety of people and grow more confident in who I was on my own.
I thought for certain I would find my new normal in college. Maybe I did, for a moment. I had a group of great friends and a loving, sweet boyfriend who was going to marry me. Then I graduated and moved to LA, and it was just like being a kid again. Not in a good way, either.
The Real World: Civilian Edition
In Los Angeles, I found that my neighbors had been living in the building for ages and were tight-knit. My co-workers, though welcoming and friendly, thought I was a kid. It wasn’t the same as making friends at school. Once again, I was the new kid, and I couldn't find an opening to squeeze myself into the community.
It seemed like my then-fiancé had adapted better to the lifestyle there. He had college friends who had moved, too. They were in the same industry, so we’d have dinners with his friends, where I barely understood what they were talking about. And while I felt depressed and a bit lonely, it was a very familiar feeling. A feeling I had hoped I’d never have to experience again once I was out of the military.
Why was I the odd man out again? How was everyone else already paired up with good friends? Did everyone else get on the same page while I was still trying to find the book? When will I catch up and fit in? When will I be normal?
Busting the Myth: There Is No Such Thing as Normal
With every move, we experience new local cultures, traditions, foods, and people. In every place, it’s like the people who’ve grown up steeped in their community have achieved normalcy. Sometimes, it’s even as though the other kids who move a lot could adjust and fit in much better than I could.
It really felt like everyone else around me had achieved normalcy. I always wondered what that must be like. It turns out, though, that “normal” is a myth. There’s no such thing.
Finding “Normal” in Your Community
My husband and I determined that LA, while nice, was not our normal. We moved back to our college town with the hope that it would be like going home. That was where we had both become adults and started out on our own. There was this hope that we’d get back, settle in, and everything would fall into place.
On the contrary, we returned and found that we had somehow gotten old from two years in LA. The college town scene was not for us anymore, and we needed somewhere else.
We found Nashville on vacation, and it automatically felt like home already. It took a little while, but we eventually moved into our first house here and had a baby. The funny thing about moving here is that we moved for the community. It was a good fit for us.
I tell you this not because I think Nashville is the end-all-be-all. It’s just that I know how desperately I tried to make Los Angeles work, and then how hard I tried to make Lafayette feel like home when we went back again. The thing is finding a community that suits you may take a little while. You may move around a few times before you settle in, and that’s okay.
Your normal is not mine; it’s not your sister’s or your best-friend-from-middle-school’s. If you’re like me, you may have idealized places you lived in the past and assumed that going back there would feel like going home. The jarring realization that it doesn’t work like that can break your heart, but it’s okay.
I want you to feel free to find your own home. Maybe you’ll get a job that transfers you somewhere, and you'll have to set roots there. But without the military, you do have a lot of freedom to roam and pick your own place. For me, a vacation trip turned into my dream town. For you, maybe you can go back to the city where you went to kindergarten and sink your toes in. Find what feels good, and that will be your normal.